I recently had an attorney ask me this question about a client of his, whom he suspected had ADHD. The client had been pulled over on a routine traffic stop and the police officer noticed he was very anxious, so the client was put through a field sobriety test. He panicked during the test and failed it. He was then arrested for suspicion of DUI.
I dug through the research on ADHD and stress, and I found some interesting information. People with ADHD tend to have lower cortisol levels when confronted with stress than people without ADHD. Cortisol is a chemical released by our bodies when we are anxious. Numerous studies have noted that people with ADHD are less engaged during stressful situations and pay less attention to stressful stimuli. This is true of both teens and adults with ADHD.
Interestingly, people with ADHD also have higher incidents of anxiety-related disorders than individuals without ADHD. You might think it would be the other way around--if people aren't paying attention to stressful stimuli, they should be calmer, right?
Our brains actually work the opposite way. We tend to handle stressful situations better if we confront them head-on, rather than attempting to ignore the situation. In general, people who focus more on their stress during a stressful event will have less anxiety in the long-run than people who are not able to focus on that stress in the moment.
Because of this somewhat surprising finding, it makes sense that people with ADHD, who are less engaged with their stress in the moment, might experience higher overall levels of anxiety. In turn, if someone has anxiety, he/she may be more prone to panic in highly stressful situations, such as a field sobriety test.
There could be many reasons why this particular client failed the field sobriety test. He could have been anxious because he has ADHD. He could have been anxious without ADHD. He could have just been stressed about something totally unrelated. Or, he could have been drunk. But, if he did have ADHD, there is certainly a chance that his brain chemistry and physiology made him more prone to failing the test, even when completely sober.
Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.